Happiness can be a nebulous concept at the best of times and when it comes to football, one wonders whether it is something that fans should wrestle with too much. Football is, after all, meant to be an escape from the grind of everyday life. It is intended to be a distraction as much as a hobby.
I always looked at football like real life but with the training wheels on. It is something we can become immersed in and emotional about in the knowledge that it doesn’t really matter, existentially speaking. Even the most crushing defeats and disappointments don’t carry a tangible impact on one’s life.
So if football is escapism, it seems counterintuitive to then have to consider a lot of the additional moral burdens that have been placed upon supporters in recent years. Our clubs indulge in all sorts of morally dubious commercial tie-ins (what the hell is a “blockchain” again?), the amount of money at the top level of football is obscene and the World Cup, football’s gold-tinted centrepiece, is becoming more of a moral sewer with each tournament.
Even if we are able to muster up enough cognitive dissonance to set all of that aside, then we are left to consider the thorny question of what success looks like for our own clubs. The wealth divides between clubs have established football’s hierarchy in a way that looks practically irreversible.
Relatively speaking, Arsenal are a very wealthy club who benefit hugely from football’s current ecosystem. Even after years of under delivery, they can still spend £50m on a centre-half, the guts of £30m on a goalkeeper and £35m on a new playmaker in one summer transfer window.
The existential issue for Arsenal fans is that there is a cartel of clubs above them who will be exceptionally difficult to shift any time in the foreseeable future. Even if the club does get its act together and start to operate in a smarter fashion than they have been, the thought of being able to compete with the riches of Manchester City and Chelsea is laughable. Nearly every player on both of their substitute benches would walk into the Arsenal starting line-up.
While there is little doubt that Arsenal have been immensely stupid in recent years, so too have Chelsea. They have made poor recruitment decisions- Baba Rahman, Danny Drinkwater, Ross Barkley and Tiémoué Bakayoko are all still training with Chelsea. Kenedy and Michu Batshuayi are Chelsea players out on loan.
Christian Pulisic cost £58m and has been no more successful a signing than Nicolas Pepe has for Arsenal. The problem with competing with clubs like Chelsea is not just the money that they can spend on players, it’s the fact that their margin for error is infinite. Pulisic not quite living up to his potential (yet) has not represented an issue because Havertz, Werner and Lukaku have all been added since his signing. They are not obliged to try to make Pulisic work.
There has been a recalibration of expectations at Arsenal in recent years and, like many of you, I felt a faint whiff of melancholia. When confronted with the question, “what would represent a successful league finish?” it feels a little deflating to admit that 6th place would- it’s difficult to get excited about trying to finish 5th or 6th and to equate it with success.
Of course, many supporters felt much the same about trying to finish 3rd or 4th in the late Wenger years. A question I have been grappling with for a while is whether any clubs or supporters are actually happy? The destination of the league title in a vast number of European leagues is a foregone conclusion, winning the league title doesn’t produce that much happiness because most of the eventual victors expected to win it and have indeed won it again and again over the last decade or so. 2021 provided some exceptions with Lille winning Ligue 1 and Inter breaking Juventus’ stranglehold on Serie A. Both have subsequently had to sell their best players to stave off financial ruin, however. It doesn’t seem like a healthy situation.
If the teams that win the league aren’t truly happy, who else really is other than the winners of the Champions League? Newly promoted clubs that thrive in their new division are probably the most content- Leeds, for example. However, that happiness seems fleeting because once you establish yourself at a new level, the novelty soon fades. Just ask fans of Portsmouth, Wigan, Swansea and Stoke.
The question for Arsenal fans is complicated too because we have been accustomed to a level of success that, frankly, looks close to unattainable now. I am certain that in the early Wenger years when Arsenal and Manchester United constructed a duopoly many supporters of other clubs looked on with indifference or a gnawing sense of unattainability too. (Manchester City fans would certainly not have foreseen that their club would become the country’s superpower).
I don’t think Arsenal’s drift impacted me profoundly- football has always been cyclical. Sometimes it’s your turn to swig the champagne and sometimes it’s your turn to chug on a tepid mug of mediocrity. I think I have always maintained a sense of humour or irony when Arsenal have been a bit crap. However, football’s power structure has never been more entrenched and the glass ceiling is now made of concrete.
To remotely compete at the level they enjoyed 20 years or so ago, Arsenal have to be a heady mixture of perfect and lucky. Liverpool enjoyed this cocktail recently until last season when cosmic retribution seemed to focus its ire on all of their centre-halves. There is no doubt that Arsenal can and should be better but the tough question remains- what is their ceiling, realistically?
Maybe they can enjoy a really strong and slightly fortunate season and make their way into 4th once every few seasons? It doesn’t feel especially exciting. One of the guys I sit with at home games has decided to take the one-year abstinence holiday that the club offered to all season-ticket holders for this season and he isn’t sure that he will ever return.
His rationale is that Arsenal stands absolutely no chance of competing for the title again under KSE and the only way to change that, is for them to sell to an oligarch or other type of billionaire. He says that that just doesn’t seem like something he really wants to wish for anyway, where the best case scenario where Arsenal becomes a front for a sportswashing enterprise.
It’s difficult to challenge his logic. So how do we, as Arsenal fans, source happiness from following our club? Do we super charge our cognitive dissonance, not worry too much about the destination and just try to enjoy the journey as plenty of fans of clubs far lower in the football pyramid seem to manage?
Plenty of us lie to ourselves about being more able to get behind a team full of young players. Folarin Balogun and Gabriel Martinelli have been the starting centre-forwards in Arsenal’s opening two Premier League games, both defeats and it doesn’t feel like people are really coalescing around this. The atmosphere still feels fatalistic.
Arsenal have a former club captain at the helm and a team whose average age has dropped considerably over the last year or so. Is that enough for people to really get behind? Would we be happy with a moderately improved league position but a dramatically improved ‘product’ in terms of the football the team plays? Would that be enough?
Of course we are grappling with these existential questions at a time when fans are returning to stadiums en masse. At West Brom on Wednesday night, the travelling supporters toasted Aaron Ramsdale and their pair of Hale End darlings, Bukayo Saka and Emile Smith Rowe to the tune of Status Quo’s ‘Rockin’ All Over the World’ and the world felt a little lighter.
One of my new season resolutions is to just try to enjoy things more and having a player who seems really, really happy to play for Arsenal is nice, isn't it? https://t.co/LvjMid2FQ3
— Tim Stillman (@Stillberto) August 26, 2021
I think the decision that I have made is to enjoy the games as much as possible, especially when I am in the stadium. That pleasure was unavailable for so long that I aim to cherish it but that’s not an option that is available to everyone, of course. It seems a shame that we are left to make individual decisions about what constitutes happiness when the best thing about being a football fan is the collective experience it engenders. Maybe we just have to learn to enjoy the little things- I know I plan to.